The Airborne Toxic Event are an indie-rock band from California who formed in 2006. Fronted by Mikel Jollett, a former freelance writer and music journalist, along with Steven Chen (Guitars), Noah Harmon (Bass), Anna Bullbrook (Viola, Keyboards) and Darren Taylor (Drums), their brand of epic, widescreen, indie rock with dashes of orchestration saw them receive rapturous reviews when their debut was released in 2008. The timing of its release was perfect for the insatiable appetite fans and critics alike had for this brand of music since the likes of Arcade Fire had spearheaded the genre’s charge into the mainstream. I had heard the album and was impressed with Jollett’s songcraft and his way around a good tune.
Then in 2010, Sky Arts (an amazing channel for great music films, features, and documentaries) televised a concert of theirs filmed at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. in late 2009, which was the last show of their 2 year tour in support of their debut album. For the show they had enlisted the help of The Calder String Quartet, a High School Marching Band, a children’s choir, Mexican dancers, as well as various additional musicians to add colour and texture to their already expansive sound. Watching it was a revelation for me from the word go. I was instantly hooked by the truly spectacular opening of the Calder Quartet performing Ravel’s ‘Assez vif-Tres rythme’ as each member of the band slowly filed on stage and joined the quartet in building the music’s intensity up with the propulsion and rhythmical drive reminiscent of Arcade Fire, which segues beautifully into ‘Wishing Well’, their debuts opening number, given even more power by Mikel Jollett sat above the congregation at the theatre’s huge church organ that swells the songs intro. The orchestration becomes the songs focal point rather than the subtle accompaniment on the album version. This is the case for a lot of the tracks featured here and they are much better for it.
While Jollett’s voice is fairly unremarkable as a stand alone instrument, he knows how to use it depending on the emotional context of the song he is singing and you find yourself hanging on every word he sings as a result. Most of the time he employs the cracked and emotional, yet tuneful, indie vocal style that suits their musical arrangements, yet also is able to flip to a deep baritone and an all out throat shredding wail in some of their more upbeat and in your face songs.
The concert features the majority of their debut albums tracks along with various cover versions as well as newly written numbers that would go on to be featured on their recently released second album ‘All At Once’. As the concert progresses it becomes apparent just how good the band sound with the extra strings and subtle tweaks to their arrangements as well as Jollett’s classic songwriting sensibility. Of the cover versions performed the bands touching rendition of The Magnetic Fields ‘The Book Of Love’ is the most impressive. Dedicated to Jollett’s grandmother who had died only a week before the show, it is beautifully executed as Jollett starts from a deep baritone to a soaring, angelic vocal delivery that is spine tingling.
The early part of the show features the bands more emotional and melodically pretty songs where the string quartet takes centre stage. ‘This Losing’ with its rolling drum beats and bouncy acoustic guitar and strings set the mood perfectly before the emotional onslaught of ‘A Letter To Georgia’. Its simple piano line with shimmering strings, decorate heartbreaking lyrics of a relationship breakdown which is simply stunning.
‘Duet’ carries on the emotional heart wrenching with a delicate acoustic and viola arrangement and soaring ‘La la laa’s’ that stay the right side of schmaltz, with lyrics that namedrop Radiohead and Modest Mouse whilst singing about the end of a relationship.
Rather than having a straight ahead concert film, the performance is broken up with black and white rehearsal and backstage footage of the band making their preparations for the concert. From viewing it is clear that Jollett and the band had put a lot of thought into the concert production and how they could mix up their song arrangements making it a fitting ending to their tour, as well as making use of the grand venue that they find themselves in. Their tutoring of an evidently nervous high school marching band that then leads into the performance of ‘Does This Mean You Are Moving On’ with them on the night is heart-warming stuff and is pulled off with great aplomb. The songs naturally uplifting feel is given extra punch with the added horns and drums giving a carnival atmosphere. This is reinforced by the cover version of The Ramones ‘Do You Remember Rock n Roll Radio?’ with the pounding drum beat and riffing punctuated by the marching bands colourful playing.
Anna Bullbrook is an engaging sight throughout the whole show. An obviously talented viola player, she also dances around the stage fully immersed in the music and is a perfect foil to the more static nature of the guys in the band. Jollett’s stage banter is friendly and endearing, often dropping in jokes in the middle of songs, giving the rather formal surroundings a more of a laid back, gathering of friends’ vibe. As the concert progresses the celebratory atmosphere really starts to come into its own.
The final encore of ‘Missy’ is accompanied by a children’s choir, before every single performer of the night is brought back to the stage for the songs finale. As the stage fills with the marching band, Mexican dancers, and the string quartet they all join together to see the song out to a joyful climax. An evidently relieved band, looking thankful that the logistics of performing with so many people had passed by without a hitch, leave the stage having thoroughly sold themselves to me as being much more than just an average indie-rock band.
What this concert film demonstrated to me was that the band was very aware that they wanted to do something different than just your average concert DVD. Instead they wanted to do something that would breathe new life into the songs they had been performing for the previous two years, coupled with the fact that it was a homecoming show and wanted it to be a special experience for the band and fans alike. Performing in such a grand, picturesque setting meant that Mikel Jollett’s epic musical ideas had a perfect platform to showcase themselves and it all came together perfectly. It is a worthy watch and listen for anyone who values true songwriting ability and genuine musicality, over the increasingly prevalent “style over substance” that blights the indie rock genre. Anyone with a true appreciation of the moving power of music will find much to enjoy.